Congress has taken a significant step toward cleaning up the backlog of U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, passing a bill that seeks to prevent the current months- and even years-long delays in government responses to journalists' requests for information. The Openness Promotes Effectiveness in our National Government Act, or OPEN Government Act (S. 849), passed the Senate on August 3, 2007. The House already had approved similar legislation (H.R. 1309) by an overwhelming vote of 308-117.
The Society of American Archivists, a national organization with 4,900 members employed in the private and public sectors, applauds the action by Congress and calls on all U.S. government agencies to meet their obligations under FOIA to release requested records.
Government agencies are required to respond to FOIA requests within 20 days. But a recent report by the National Security Archive (NSA) on federal agencies’ compliance with the 40-year-old Act found a pattern of long delays in responding to some requests from NSA and other parties. The delays were so long, in fact, that no normal circumstances could explain these decades-long lapses.
Archivists and the institutions they represent hold records with historical value in trust for current users and for future generations. Government archivists and archives keep a public trust for providing access to records created by elected and appointed officials and the agencies they operate. All citizens depend on public records to guarantee their rights and entitlements, hold their government accountable, and understand the history of our country. The Society of American Archivists advocates for equal and open access to records in a manner that is consistent with maintaining confidentiality and protecting individual privacy.
By requiring government offices to respond to requests for records within 20 days, FOIA plays a critical role in maintaining access to federal records that are still in agencies’ custody. NSA’s report shows clearly that some agencies’ handling of requests filed under FOIA fails the letter as well as the spirit of the law. Of 57 agencies and offices surveyed by NSA, 53 have backlogs of unmet requests and 12 still have requests that are more than 10 years old. The report reveals a “dishonor roll” of five agencies that are still sitting on FOIA requests that are 15 or more years old.
To paraphrase a crucial truth, access delayed can be access denied. Because denial of access to public records damages the trust of citizens in their government and ultimately undermines democratic governance itself, SAA has serious concerns about the pattern of delays that NSA reports. Rather than viewing FOIA requests as a burden, federal agencies must understand that FOIA is an essential element of their responsibilities.
SAA calls on all U.S. government offices to clear their backlogs of requests under FOIA and to comply with the Act’s requirements.